The GMW Interview:  We sat down with superintendent, Dr. Kevin Smith, yesterday for a wide-ranging talk about the start of his second year at the helm of the Wilton Public School district. We talked about the start of school for students, special education, communication, getting administrators and principals out from behind desks and into classrooms…and of course, SBACs.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  The first week back to school, how has it been?

Kevin Smith:  The first week back with kids has been fabulous. I was on the buses the first day, roaming around. It was fun to see, especially the little ones at Miller-Driscoll.  Everyone was excited to come back. The weather has been hot, but we’re fortunate to have air conditioning in our buildings, so we can be here for the full day.

The planning we did over the summer, we had quite a bit more hiring than we anticipated, but things went very well. I’m thrilled about the new teachers we hired. We’re off to a great start, and I’m sure it’s going to continue.

GMW:  This is the first year it’s really “yours.” You’re not inheriting something, you’re not walking into someone else’s district. This is your district. As a parent and as an observer, I do sense a different energy here now. Is that something you consciously tried to create?

KS:  Absolutely. For any new person, whether you’re a parent or family moving in, or if you’re a teacher or an administrator at my level, it takes some time to get your feet on the ground. Some of the big differences from last year to this year, I feel I have a pretty clear sense of the whole, where our real strengths are and where our growth areas are, for sure.

Having a full year to develop those relationships with parents and teachers and particularly with the other administrators, has made a world of difference, because now as we talk about vision and strategic planning, we really are speaking from the same book or singing from the same hymnal, if you like.

We spent three days this summer with the principals, assistant principals and senior leadership team, looking at our vision and going through a series of protocols that helped us to back-map from where we want to be to where we are now, and to start to lay out what are the most strategic steps we need to take to get there quickly. It was a different conversation this year because we were using the same words and the same vocabulary. I do believe we’re working from a shared vision.

We took the Board of Education through a similar exercise and that was really exciting. People are starting to see tangibly a sense of what the future could hold.

GMW:  Talking about tangibles, what are the tangible things you can point to that you’re proudest of after a year, and what are⎯to use your words⎯the “growth areas” for improvement.

KS: Having [assistant superintendent for curriculum] Chuck [Smith] here a year ahead of me, and as we’ve gotten to know each other, I’ve found we’re very much in line in terms of our visions and values, and what we want for Wilton’s Schools.

What I’m most proud of, in terms of budget work, was number one, establishing a clear vision of where we want to go. But then really focusing resources on the instructional core⎯on what’s  happening in the classroom. So changing our IL [instructional leadership] structure so that now we have curriculum coordinators and coaches in every building⎯that’s huge, so we’re really going to see an impact this year as we tighten up our expectations around instruction and then provide the kind of support to teachers that they need so they can achieve that level of standard that we’ve articulated in our evaluation program.

That’s probably the most important.

Number two, I’ve found a real willingness among so many in the district to try new things. One of the glaring areas of improvement of us is around the work we’re doing in special education. Meeting a group of willing partners who said, ‘Yes, we recognize what our problem is and we’re willing to take a look at this,’ and facilitating the opportunity to have District Management Council (DMC) come in and partner with us, and take a very, very comprehensive study. Doing that work, over the course of the latter half of last year was very significant. It signaled to me that we’re not afraid to confront where we need to grow.

Number three, the challenge for many school districts and administrators is getting out of this office and into the classroom. That’s the number one thing you’ll hear principals and assistant principals, here or elsewhere, say:  ‘I don’t have time to get into the classroom.’

One of the things we know is, when they show up and are in the classroom instruction gets better. We spent some time with them this summer and created new structures that are going to permit them to spend much more time in the classrooms. All of us, as an administrative group have committed to a full one or two days per week doing nothing but visiting classrooms and spending time working with teachers.

GMW:  One or two days a week, that’s a lot of time…

KS:  I don’t want to generically quote research, but it’s plain:  if principals are true instructional leaders and are in the classroom, then instruction gets better. The number one barrier to that is all the administrative work. Nationally, the last study I saw, principals spend on average 6-percent of their time in classrooms. We want 40-percent. That’s our goal, and folks are willing to give it a go.

GMW:  Explain how that gets done.

KS:  There’s an administrator training program called Breakthrough Coach. It helps administrators look at what is the real core of their work, and what is the other work they do that’s not core but gets in the way. When you go through that, it helps you identify who you can give that work to. Teaching administrators how to maximally use their assistants, how to let go of email, how to manage all of that other information, paper, whatever that comes your way and put it in a box so you can do what you need to do. Part of it is confronting habits that so many of us have created in this work.

There’s a much heavier reliance on our schedules and working with our assistants to literally map out our entire week, sectioning off time and keeping it clear so you can be in the classroom. Then dedicating the other time to doing what you need to do.

GMW:  I see you at Security Task Force Meetings, School Board Meetings, Town Meetings, this meeting and that one. Beginning of the year I imagine that’s hard, but is it hard for you and the other administrators to do?

KS:  It is, but all of us in  our roles can get complacent if we’re not careful.  We can develop bad habits. It’s keeping what’s most important in front, and developing the discipline to follow through on what’s most important. If I tell you what’s most important is being in classrooms with kids or with parents or not in my office, then I have to do that. This doesn’t work in isolation. Lucille [DeNovio, my assistant]’s job is to make sure I can do that work. Each of the administrators has that same support.

It also requires saying ‘no’ to some things. I look at the 110-some emails I get daily and I’ve said to my assistant, ‘You’re going to handle these emails so I can do this other, more important work.’ We work together, meet in the morning and go through what we each need to do. So far, I’ve got more developing to do, but it’s working.

If we can bring that to scale across all administrators, and couple that with the deep instructional coaching they’re getting, it sends a real powerful message to all who are watching that classroom instruction is what matters most.

GMW:  One small example where I’ve seen a drastic shift of tone since you’ve come to Wilton is #WiltonWayCT. In a year to go from, ‘Teachers aren’t allowed to be on social media, or be friends with Wilton parents on social media,’ to now being able to see what’s happening in the classroom, almost in real time, on Twitter. Teachers like what GMW posts on social media! What’s your vision for this?

KS:  Number one, I want to address parents’ safety concerns. That’s been a really sensitive subject in Wilton. For very good reasons, parents don’t want to have their children’s faces broadcast over social media. I completely understand that; I have my own kids, and I don’t want them off in cyberspace. I want to acknowledge and affirm that.

However, because most people work and most teachers work in isolation in their classrooms, there aren’t good mechanisms for sharing all the good news that takes place on a minute-by-minute basis in virtually every single one of our classrooms. Accepting the risk, and putting in appropriate parameters, I think we do that and we just start to share what’s going on.

What I’ve found, is it creates a genuine sense of excitement about what kids are learning. More often than not, people have no idea because they’re not there seeing it.

Where I’m going with this, I really believe we have some of the best teachers in the country, and I want to showcase their work all over the universe for others to see and emulate. Using #WiltonWayCT and creating that narrative of excellence that takes place here in district is very important.

But it’s also reciprocating and seeing what’s going on in those other classrooms, and bringing those practices back is equally as important.

We just hired an assistant principal at Cider Mill, [Lauren Catalano] who I knew as a teacher up in Bethel. She’s one of the finest educators that I’ve ever met, she’s got all the talent and skills. One of the practices she adopted several years ago that I was taken with was the way she used Facebook to create a portfolio of learning that her parents could access. She created a private page on Facebook, where most adults live these days so it was an obvious choice. She set it up as a closed group and each day she’d post pictures, post video, audio and showcase what the kids were doing and their parents could log in and check it out.

Over the course of a year, that builds and you have a 181-day record of all the really cool things that kids in this classroom. I thought that was a tremendous practice, and it became another venue for her to very easily communicate with parents–they can send a message, comment on their kid’s work, they can ask a question. It created a new and very authentic dialog about what was happening in her classroom. Tremendously successful.

As a vision of next steps for this district, that’s what I’m looking for. Some of these new opportunities for our teachers to better and more authentically share with parents so they can really get a deeper sense of what their kids are up to.

You know as a mom of a middle schooler, when you say, ‘How was school today,’ and you hear, ‘Fine,’ you can circumvent the ‘Fine’ now. You can say, ‘I saw on your teacher’s Facebook page you’re doing x, y and z, so tell me about that.’ It’s a new opportunity to have a different kind of conversation with your child as well, and a new opportunity to interact with teachers as well.

Another avenue, the Wilton Education Foundation very generously provided $60,000 so we could install and upgrade TV studios all across the district. We have another $90,o00 from the state of CT to create the capacity to live remote-stream. All of those systems are coming on line now so that’s another area we have to continue to push out to the community events, activities… We haven’t even scratched the surface of what we’ll be able to do with capturing and recording teachers’ lessons that can then be archived and accessed by students, by students someplace else. I couldn’t be more excited about the potential to share, and to create new opportunities for kids who are home or wherever to access learning because they can’t be in school.

GMW:  When will that streaming capability be available?

KS:  [District technology director] Matt Hepfer is working on it. The hope was we would be able to live-stream the BoE meeting Thursday night. He didn’t think it would be up and running but we will be by the second board meeting on the 24th of this month.

GMW:  So that’s the one-way stream out to parents. How are you facilitating communication from parents back? I don’t know if you’ve seen some of the parent conversations on social media about the high school parking lot and the cost of senior parking? That’s a little arcane for you to have to talk about at your level, but all the same, the flip side of the great avenue that Facebook provides is that it’s also the modern-day water cooler, where rumors breed and active discussions grow over just 1-2 days. 

Are there ways the schools are adapting to bring the communication inward, in a different way? 

KS:  That was definitely a growth area for us. If you go back in time 10 years, the discussion taking place now on social media about the parking lot, how would that have been handled 10 years ago? I think we need to remember, in all of the issues that exist that we want to correct, we need to prioritize. That’s what I told administrators very plainly this summer. We need to focus on the most important things.

That not to minimize other issues, but we have to better manage them. We can’t ignore them, but we have to manage them.

What I’m expecting from the building principals and administrators is communications with parents, but parents and other people have to bring the concerns to the right people.

I have had no idea what the issue is with the high school senior parking lot, and I’m happy for that. That is not my place to get involved. That’s for Bob [O’Donnell, WHS principal] and company at the high school. Hopefully the folks who have those concerns have picked up the phone and called them or sent an email and are having a dialog there or around the PTA tables.

Taking advantage of multiple avenues, try to get the right person on the phone first. If you don’t get the right person or the response you’re looking for, then you go up the chain. I think that’s appropriate.

We’ve been talking about opportunities to have more community-type conversations. We’ve embarked on a different kind of strategic planning after this past year. We’ll be having more of those conversations similar to the one the Bd. of Ed. hosted about the budget. Those will be coming up over the course of the next 4-5 months on various topics.

Informal conversations that take place at events–back-to-school nights, on the sidelines of a field, those are all important too.

I guess what I’m saying is being open to any and every avenue we have and can take advantage of, I certainly will do that. But if people have particular concerns, find the right person and if you don’t know who the right person is, call Lucille, and she’ll connect you.

We’ve all had those experiences where you see something on social media and it causes a stir and you react. What I’d say to everyone is it’s important to know the facts. Not everything you see is actually factual. Before you get your dander up, take a breath, make a phone call, get the facts, and then respond accordingly.

GMW:  What a good segue to talking about the SBACs.

KS:  Yes. The SBAC scores. Those were a surprise.

A couple of things. What they represent is not student achievement per se. It’s not like in 2014-15 Wilton students started to achieve less. What they really indicate is our alignment to the Common Core standards and our implementation of instructional practices that are aligned to Common Core standards.

My understanding is that, unlike some other communities, Wilton was delayed in beginning that transition to alignment to the core standards. I think that’s what we’re seeing.

If you look across the state, a lot of times standardized tests would fall along demographic lines:  more affluent places would do better, less affluent places would do worse. There’s all kinds of research that bears that out repeatedly. Not to suggest that that’s ok, it’s just one of the realities of public education here in CT.

In this first round of SBAC testing, while that was true to some extent, it was much less even. So you saw some communities do very, very well and others, like us, who didn’t do as well. I really attribute that to the late start that we got in terms of alignment. That goes back to some of the work we initiated in earnest last year:  implementation of [instructional] coaches, a real focus on curriculum review in a meaningful way.

We’re going to see our scores come way up because we’re tightening up that alignment.

I think the other elephant in the room, when you look at those scores, is our achievement for our disabled students was very low on that test. That’s of greater concern to me. Our practices have been out of sync, and while we’ve been working to bring them back into line with best practice, they are a major indicator that we have a long way to go. [The SBAC results] just fuel that sense of urgency that we all feel as we’re looking to improve our instructional practice for our special education kids.

Trying to minimize reliance on paraprofessionals for instructional support, using better diagnostic tools to understand and identify gaps that kids have, and then connecting them with the specialists who know how to close those gaps. That’s part of the plan that we’re embarking on with the assistance of DMC.

What I would say to people who are reacting to the SBAC scores is this:

Number one, don’t panic. As disappointing as they are, after spending a year in our classrooms and really seeing that gap in alignment, they weren’t terribly surprising. I’m sorry to say that, because I wish we were in a different place.

But people ought to know, and I hope they take confidence that we’re doing the right things and we have a good plan. I would say, if anything, this first round of SBAC scores is only going to create a stronger sense of urgency and accelerate our pace of change.

GMW:  There was lots of talk (yes, on social media) about how the juniors didn’t take the SBACs seriously. That they were even told not to take it seriously.

KS:  It’s hard to say. There were a couple things that were telling. I was struck by Wilton’s participation rate, compared to others. We had a very, very high participation rate, even among our juniors.

It was a very challenging test. Were there some who blew it off? I imagine, and I imagine there were some in every community. Were some told not to take it seriously? Maybe. I hope not.

Something that got lost in all the debate around Common Core standards and SBAC testing in general is the need for those universal assessments. The SBAC is not a test that is designed to give individual student-level data so we can provide interventions. We have internal measures for that.

The SBAC is a snapshot so we can understand how we are doing in terms of our district alignment to Common Core standards, and ensure that our kids are college- and career-ready.

Some of the added complications were around technology. It was a new test format, and not necessarily an easy test format. So unless students had some facility with the computers and the way the test was set up, I’m sure it created confusion. We are in the process of building our capacity to more efficiently manage that test. Right now we don’t have a 1:1 program, we don’t have a laptop or a Chrome book for every kid. So kids are cycled through labs, it chews up huge parts of the day, it compounds the problem. On that side, we have quite a bit of growing to do as well.

GMW:  Can you clarify two things–when you say we were late in bringing our curriculum in line with the Common Core, what would have been better timing? When did other schools start that?

KS:  In CT, the core standards were adopted in July of 2010. So some districts started to unpack the standards and begin the transition work as early as the summer of 2010. I wasn’t here, so I can’t say what was done, when here. I’m offering this anecdotally, and it’s just my read of what’s happening by being on the ground and in classrooms.

It was interesting, when I started here last year, I didn’t hear a lot of conversation about Common Core, and that surprised me. Chuck related something similar when he started the year prior. He also didn’t hear the same kind of tenor and conversation about alignment to core standards. Those are just two indicators. There were some things done–the district transitioned to Singapore math; the district initiated a transition to workshop model for reading and writing. Those are two very good, important steps. Now we just have to strengthen the work we’re doing to train teachers to implement with fidelity.

GMW:  Talking about special education and the gap that was shown between different learners and the rest of the student population, there will be some readers who say the amount we already spend on Special Education is so high, are you just going to “throw more money” into special education? What is the way to focus on that, but keeping the bottom line in mind?

KS:  I agree. It’s not just a Wilton concern. The escalating cost of public education in this community and all the surrounding ones is a major concern. It’s a concern I’ve had for years. What is revealed in the way we allocate dollars, that came through particularly in the study done by DMC, we generously fund public schools in this district, as you know. One of the reasons I came to this district is because of how well supported the schools are here. There’s tremendous opportunity.

Talking specifically about special education, it’s very clear that we allocate lots of money to supporting our special ed kids. It’s not a question of adding more dollars. It’s a question of putting our dollars in the right place. One of the uncomfortable truths revealed in that DMC study was our assumptions about what we think works.

One of those assumptions that came through in the data was that we believe if we just assign an adult body to a kid, that’s somehow going to take care of the problem. You see that in our staffing. We have lots of specialists, lots of paraprofessionals, lots of special education teachers, but we haven’t deployed those people strategically. So one of the proposals we’re working through right now, in the area of reading, is looking at the way we assign reading resources to kids who need it.

For example, we do diagnostic assessments fairly routinely. But how do we use that diagnostic data? If a kid is below grade-level in reading, do we automatically assign a specialist to help close the gap? Not necessarily, so that’s the work we need to do. It’s focusing dollars in the right way. As we go through the next budget cycle, that’s one of our goals–to make sure we have the right people with the right training doing the right work.

GMW:  What else do you want GMW readers to know?

KS:  Focusing the district and its resources on instruction is a really key understanding for people. Ensuring that administrators are out and in the classroom, and doing the right work coaching; ensuring that we are really monitoring student progress and creating the mechanism so we can really respond effectively.–that’s something the district had started to do a year or so ago and this year we’re really making a concerted effort to make sure that happens, so that SRBI [scientific research-based interventions] programs in each of the buildings, we’re going to look at those very carefully and providing very proscriptive feedback to each of the buildings, to ensure that those systems are in place.

With the DMC work we’re really going to be shining a light on the work we’re doing in special education.

We’re changing the way we do business. Because as you saw from the SBAC scores and lots of other data, the way we’ve done business in the past doesn’t work anymore. So we have to change accordingly. There’s a very willing and receptive audience here to make the kinds of changes that are necessary.

As we have lots and lots of different conversations in this community, about the cost of the Miller-Driscoll building project, about legal fees, about indoor air quality, about PCBs, about all those related things, we have to remember that we’re putting children and their education in our public school system at the center of that. And we’re focusing on doing that to the very best of our ability.

So, there are going to be some other things that we’re going to not do. One of the examples that [assistant superintendent for special education] Ann Paul and I were talking about this summer, and one of the changes we need to make, is the way we spend our time in PPT meetings. Ann has collected this kind of data for a couple years, but this district has a lot of PPT meetings. I’m not suggesting they’re not important. But when you look at the way other districts operate, we can provide parents with the same information and not take teachers or specialists away from kids to do it. We’re working on trying to streamline our processes so we can meet parents’ needs, but also maximize time in front of kids.

One of the really revealing findings in that DMC study was, the amount of time our related-service providers are not spending with kids. We’re going to try to flip that equation and make sure they’re with kids. Because that’s how we’re going to have an impact.

What we’re starting to describe here with building and district leaders is differentiating between what needs to be business as usual and what needs to be strategic. The strategic plan we’re developing with the BoE is really focused on three or four key areas that are going to propel us forward in achieving our vision.

But the other work isn’t going to stop; we need to make it ‘business as usual.’ Having those SRBI practices down and well-managed, ensuring that communication systems are robust so it doesn’t become a focus that takes us away from working on the more strategic initiatives.

So we’re going to be busy.